Del Mar school district outreach group considers options to address enrollment issues

By Karen Billing

At the Oct. 29 Del Mar Union School District outreach group meeting, the committee looked at new options to tackle low enrollment at Ashley Falls School and enrollment far exceeding capacity at Sycamore Ridge due to the campus housing part of the district’s Child Development Center (CDC) and preschool.

As there is a need for a permanent home for the CDC, options for the developing facilities master plan are to re-locate the CDC to Torrey Hills School, making new development in East Pacific Highlands Ranch part of the Ashley Falls School boundary or constructing a ninth district school in Pacific Highlands Ranch.

Superintendent Holly McClurg said these are important topics and they need input on the presented options to bring a good facilities master plan to the board in January. They hope to get community feedback on these options at the Nov. 6 town hall meeting.

A big part in developing these latest options was looking at enrollment projections, prepared by the Dolinka Group.

Ashley Falls is projected to further decline in enrollment, dipping to a low of 300 in 2016. While schools such as Carmel Del Mar, Del Mar Hills and Del Mar Heights are expected to grow in enrollment, enrollment at Torrey Hills is projected to decline, from 652 in 2012, dropping off every year to a low of 580 in 2022.

Torrey Hills Principal Barbara Boone questioned why the school’s numbers would dip, given that construction cranes are visible from her campus blacktop on the construction of 384 new apartment units down the street.

“Projecting student enrollment is a very challenging activity, a lot gets taken into consideration,” said Benjamin Dolinka, president of the Dolinka Group, noting they even factor in fertility rates.

Dolinka said they looked at the apartment complex and other units around the district to find reasonable samplings. He said typically apartment units generate fewer children than single family detached homes. Per statewide averages, for every 10 homes, roughly four kids are produced for the district; for apartment complexes it takes 10 units to produce one child.

The East Pacific Highlands Ranch community is expected to bring the first new students to the district in 2015 (16), 215 students by 2019 and 248 by 2022. By moving those students to the Ashley Falls boundary, that would help fill empty seats at the school.

Re-locating the CDC to Torrey Hills would free up 10 classrooms at Sycamore Ridge, representing about 240 seats.

Several committee members said ideally it would be great to have one location for the entire CDC rather than it being split.

“We just don’t physically have enough space to support the program,” said Andrea Sullivan of LPA Architects, noting an additional challenge is that the structure needs to be single story.

Some parents seemed discouraged that the options presented dealt with new structures for the CDC.

“How much space do we really need?” one parent asked about the CDC. “I’m at an older school…shouldn’t we spend money on current schools instead?”

Melissa Tirri, the coordinator of early childhood education, said the CDC supports district staff children first and then it is opened up to the public. Ashley Falls has the babies, 6 weeks old to two year olds; Sycamore houses children 3 to 5 years old and is open to the community.

Tirri said 80 percent of the CDC at Ashley Falls is district staff children and at Sycamore, 70 percent is community children.

The preschool helps funds things inside the district, including a portion of staff salary.

The special education preschool is also required to have a certain number of regular education children so the special education children can be integrated with their peers.

One parent said that if the district moves forward in building a new CDC facility it needs to be made clear what the CDC’s purpose is, what the goals are and why it is the way it is. The parent said if the district didn’t have to support such a big program, that could also free up classroom space.

As East PHR is expected to generate just 248 students, many of the committee members agreed that the option to build a ninth district school might not be feasible.

“As long as there are seats in the district it doesn’t makes sense to build a ninth school. Then the district would be operating two schools with lower enrollment,” said one committee member.

Committee members also argued that funding the new school would take away from improvements needed at the district’s existing facilities.